On Privilege and (a Lack of) Diversity on My Bookshelves

I consider myself to be a staunch proponent of diversity and representation, especially in fiction. I talk quite a bit about disability and some about sexuality, and I make a conscious effort to read and listen to discussions of diversity in areas in which I’m privileged. It’s my responsibility as a white, disabled, bisexual, middle-class, cisgender woman to unpack my various privileges and oppressions, and to recognize intersectionality in my own life and the lives of others (an idea and term created by Kimberlé Crenshaw and expanded by other Black feminists).

This year has been one of massive introspection, research, learning, listening, growing. I say all this not to pat myself on the back, but to make the point that even when I’m consciously focusing on these issues, I’m going to screw up.

When I was preparing for my Top 10 Books List and combing through my 2013 Reads shelf on Goodreads, I realized I had hugely, hugely screwed up.

Out of the 48 books I read this year, exactly ONE was written by a person of color (POC). ONE.

(For the record, it was ADAPTATION by Malinda Lo, and it was excellent. A really compelling sci-fi featuring queer characters! WOO!)

I could make a lot of excuses as to why that happened. I could talk about how so alarmingly few authors are POC, specifically within kidlit. I could talk about how agents sign so few POC, and how publishers frequently don’t market their POC authors as much or as well as their white authors. How booksellers may not carry or promote books by POC. About how books by white authors are discussed and recognized more often in the YA community by bloggers, trade reviews, bestseller lists, awards lists, etc.

I could delve further into the systemic racism within publishing that leads to things like whitewashing covers. I could discuss how books by and about POC are often shoehorned into their own “special” shelf for multicultural lit, and how that’s based on the assumption that white is “normal” and everything else is a special interest. How it’s assumed that there’s no market for kidlit written by, about, and for POC. I could point out that all of these things and more intentionally and unintentionally make it difficult to find books written by POC at all, and how all these forces also encourage readers to buy the books by white authors.

I could even talk about how it’s easier to spot trends in the aggregate than to spot a trend one piece of data (each personal book choice) at a time.

And all of the above is absolutely, distressingly true, but none of it absolves me. I chose each book. These were my choices. And it doesn’t matter if I was conscious of the fact that I was choosing white author after white author or not, because I DID IT. The end result is what matters. The fact that I’ve been blinded by my own white privilege and almost completely ignored POC authors for an entire YEAR? (And almost surely past years too, as it would be beyond naïve to think this was an isolated fluke.) That’s inexcusable to me.

I questioned whether I should even write this blog post. Firstly, to be totally honest, because it’s embarrassing. No, it’s more than that: it’s shameful to me. Secondly, because I didn’t want it to seem like I’m looking for reassurances or congratulations; that is decidedly not what this is. I’m writing this because I think it’s important to acknowledge when we screw up, and because I do not want to be a hypocrite. I’m sharing this post because I want to hold myself accountable. And because maybe it’ll inspire others to look more closely at their bookshelves, too.

There’s clearly a problem with my book buying and reading choices. Thankfully, it’s one with a pretty simple solution. Next year, I’m going to be conscious, intentional, and critical about the books I choose to buy and read. Because I like measurable goals (and because I think vague “try harder” goals are fairly worthless for me), I’m going to ensure that at least 50% of the books I read next year are written by POC. And I’m going to talk about those books, to rate and review them, to share them with others.

I hope others in the kidlit community who aren’t already will choose to actively and consciously support POC authors as well. Again, I am not writing this for kudos or recognition, as this is something I think we should all be doing anyway as decent human beings. It’s something I should have been doing all along.

It is important to learn about and talk about the wider systemic, institutional problems with racism in publishing and society in general. But I cannot be an ally without examining how my own personal choices are reinforcing the oppression I profess to oppose, and then changing those behaviors.

2014-reading-challengeAddendum: After I posted this, all-around awesome person Corinne Duyvis mentioned that Latin@s in Kidlit is having a 2014 Reading Challenge, and I am definitely going to be participating! Each participant commits to reading and reviewing at least one book per month “written by a Latin@ author and/or featuring a Latin@ characters, settings, themes, etc.” This looks like it’ll be a blast, a way to connect with other readers, and most importantly, a way to support Latin@ authors and stories. I encourage everyone to sign up to participate as well!

7 thoughts on “On Privilege and (a Lack of) Diversity on My Bookshelves

  1. Reblogged this on Latin@s in Kid Lit and commented:
    This is an excellent post from Kayla Whaley who has joined our 2014 Reading Challenge. She makes a great point about supporting diversity by choosing to diversify her bookshelves. Saying you support diversity in kid lit is great. Doing something, like reading more books by and about POC, is even better! Thanks for joining us, Kayla!

  2. I’ve joined too, and found your post on from Cindy’s blog. Excellent points to be intentional about those authors. I find them often enough, but don’t always make a point of putting them all on the list. Thanks for sharing your clear goals!

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  4. I’m about to “audit” my 2013 reading, and I suspect I will find similarly depressing stats, even though I a) made it a New Year’s resolution to read more work by PoC and b) I am a WoC. It’s really sad to realize that even if you are a stakeholder or an ally, it can be really hard to avoid the status quo. This was a great post. Thank you for writing it!

  5. The good and bad thing about the internet is that it’s great at reinforcing what you’re already doing. That’s bad if you read only books by white authors because the internet will then recommend to you books by white authors, but if you branch out, then the internet will be there to meet you half way.
    The majority of the books that I read in 2013 were by people of color, though I noticed that I left some groups out. I only read one book by a Polynesian author in 2013 and I don’t think that I read any others in the years before. Anyway, the book was The Whale Rider by Witi Ihimaera and when I looked it up on amazon, that website kept recommending me a bunch of other books by other Polynesian writers.

  6. Pingback: Diversity Links – January 2014 | Diversity in YA

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